Like Olivier Assayas’ last two films, Non-Fiction is peculiarly preoccupied with the aesthetic implications of the iPhone in our everyday lives. However, he takes a very different approach here, pulling back from the flamboyant stylistics of Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper to explore how the iPhone, and digital technology, impacts one of the most resilient of French cinematic genres – the salon film, or conversation film. You might call it Assayas’ version of Goodbye to Language, presenting us with a scenario that is familiar to anyone who has ever attended a French film festival – a series of couples who endlessly discuss marriage, infidelity, politics and each other, largely in urban apartments, and with very little interest in the world outside their own experiences of it. Beyond a certain point, the subject of these films is typically conversation itself, as well as the French claim to conversation as a national art form, making it an ideal canvas for Assayas to explore the various ways in which digital technology mediates and informs conversation in our contemporary world. From the outset, it’s impossible for any of these characters – who include a literary agent (Guillaume Canet), a television actor (Juliette Binoche), a middling writer (Vincent Macaigne), a political advisor (Christa Theret) and a digital innovator (Nora Hamzawi) – to avoid continuously coming back to digital technology as a topic of discussion, or to prevent themselves from breaking out of conversations to check their digital devices.
As that list of main players might suggest, Non-Fiction deals in types more than characters, presenting us with a taxonomy of figures who might be expected to direct the course of language in an increasingly post-linguistic era. That’s not to say that Non-Fiction is hostile to digital technology, however, since Assayas makes a point of emphasising all the ways in which digital technology remediates what we might think of as traditional literary experience. The film is especially fixated with Twitter, and comes up with three literary analogies for tweets – the haiku, the aphorisms of the Ancien Regime, and the fragmented poetics of the late nineteenth-century symbolist movement pioneered by Stephane Mallarme. Overriding these three literary analogies is a broader sense that tweets have, in some sense, always been central to the French salon, and the French salon film, both of which typically feature characters competing to outdo each other in pithy observations of 140 characters or less. As a result, much of the film plays like a Twitter feed about digital technology, or as if it is prescient that it might one day be remediated or adapted as a Twitter feed, with the characters all exchanging one aphorism and sound bite after another.
Beyond Twitter, Non-Fiction is driven by the question of how people will read in the future, and how this might relate to our experience of cinema in the future. In the contemporary world, middlebrow cinema has tended to align itself more and more with literature as a bulwark against the perceived compromises posed by digital technology, and the decline of traditional cinematic experiences. To some extent, Non-Fiction aligns itself with this literary, middlebrow mode – it’s easily the most modest, stylistically, of any of Assayas’ films – but only to question it from the inside, and ponder how even this reactionary form of cinema might nevertheless be implicit in the post-cinematic media landscape that it resists. Observing that “reading will dematerialize – it’s a fact,” the literary agent here anticipates an imminent state of literature in which there are “no more intermediaries – just writers and readers.” While this might sound like a brave new world, the main vehicle for this convergence of production and distribution – the espresso book machine, which prints on demand – belongs squarely within the literary, middlebrow landscape the film also inhabits.
Clearly, there is a direct connection between this espresso book machine and the current state of cinema, which increasingly bypasses the gap between distribution and exhibition to present films, in real time, on streaming services everywhere around the world. Whereas Assayas’ previous films present post-cinematic technology as a sublime or unknowable prospect, then, Non-Fiction domesticates this state of affairs, or suggests that we have already domesticated it, and that we live in a world in which we have all already made peace with the tensions between literature, cinema and digital technology. As the television actor points out here, “Adorno on an iPod or on a first edition with vellum paper won’t change what you get from him” and that fairly banal statement drives the film as a whole, which seems designed to be read as much as to be watched or digitally apprehended – a fact that takes on a new dimension when you see it, as I did, with subtitles, which reveal, in a new way, that the majority of the script consists of expository aphorisms, rather than conventional character or thematic development. The choice of Adorno also seems provocative, allowing Assayas to dismiss a whole philosophical lineage of anxiety about high and low art, and the material implications of mass media, with a more banal insistence that things are much as they were, and that the rise of digital technology has been exaggerated.
In many ways, there’s no better director than Assayas to make that call, given how intimately his own body of work has explored and enacted the rise of post-cinematic media over the last twenty years. By the same token, there’s something delightful about seeing Assayas actually comment on films of the last twenty years, and even give a sense of what he has himself watched. Many of the most memorable dissolutions of received categories here – truth and fiction, highbrow and lowbrow, digital and pre-digital – occur around the distinction between Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The White Ribbon, since the writer in Assayas’ script includes an anecdote about the latter film in one of his novels, only for the audience to find out that it was actually based upon an experience that happened at the former film. In fact, he’s never seen Michael Haneke’s film, leading to a series of comic misunderstandings and double entendres that collapse the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow media in ways that draw out the middlebrow lifeworld of Assayas’ film itself.
For that reason, Non-Fiction departs from most salon films, or conversation films, in displacing literature as the benchmark for aesthetic value. While discussions of truth and fiction are par for the course in this kind of film, here they don’t end up affirming – as they typically do in a salon film – the power of literature to create its own truth. Certainly, we’re presented with the figure who normally promulgates that ideology – the writer who has based his writings on his own life – but Assayas’ script takes an original course, suggesting that all media are inherently documentary, and that the novel is every bit as inherently documentary as cinema, or as digital technology. Typically, salon films revel in the fictionality of fiction as something that distinguishes it from cinema, whose closer proximity to the real world, and greater documentary potential, means that it leaves less room for the “imagination.” By presenting all media as inherently “autofictive,” however, Assayas suggests that the novel never existed as the contemporary middlebrow appropriation of it would suggest, and that the novel emerged as a documentary medium much as film did, a proposition that even the most cursory glance at the output of, say, Daniel Defoe bears out.
No surprise, then, that Non-Fiction is often shot more like a documentary than a feature film. At times it simply feels as if we’re watching Assayas’ friends conversing, or witnessing transcripts of actual conversations between Assayas and his friends. No surprise, either, that the film is devoid of highbrow literature, with Assayas appearing to be most entranced by the kind of “industrial literature” promulgated by Nora Roberts – books that mobilise digital media to boost enormous sales, and bodies of work that reflect the marketplace so directly and sensitively that they end up documenting it as much as creating fictional worlds of their own. However, Non-Fiction is arguably less successful in documenting these trends itself, since while the screenplay may be full of contemporary “touchstones,” from post-truth politics to adult coloring books, these all feel slightly out of date, which ironically makes the film feel far more dated than if its references had belonged to a much older era – phenomena fleeting enough to have dated the film in the period between production and distribution, which is perhaps why Assayas seems so interested in converging production and distribution, and closing or condensing that period. For all the know-how of these ageing baby boomers, they feel left behind or displaced in this lag between production and distribution, while Assayas also feels out of touch for the first time in his career, so I wouldn’t be surprised if his next film was made to stream, rather than for theatrical release.
For that reason, Non-Fiction feels a bit like a palette cleanser, a way for Assayas to take stock and figure out the next way to remain on the cusp of media as we know it. At times, it’s a bit surreal to think that this domesticated post-cinematic style comes from the same director who brought us Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, let alone Irma Vep and Boarding Gate, since the lyricism of Assayas’ body of work is largely absent here, replaced by a fairly insert aesthetic in which the characters endlessly explain what Assayas’ films have already been embodying, enacting and experiencing for years. In fact, so different is Non-Fiction from Assayas’ earlier films that it seems to promise an equally original pivot in his next film, one that perhaps requires this more modest and conservative release as a preparatory gesture. As a result, something burns and smoulders in the background of Non-Fiction, suggesting possibilities and directions that Assayas can’t quite compute until he has steadied himself and taken stock of where his career stands at this point. Whether it’s discussion of a local socialist candidate, an ongoing strike at a mill that has gone into receivership, or a sustained discussion of Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, the film brims with aesthetic situations submerged beneath its sparkling conversational veneer that remain half-thought, or half-known, but feel like inchoate steps in Assayas’ next direction.